Born in Uganda to Congolese parents, Kahindo Mateene, started her label, KAHINDO, in 2009, creating statement pieces with a resort feel. Based in New York and produced in Chicago, the contemporary womenswear brand features bold colors and vibrant prints inspired by the designer’s African heritage and globe-trotting adventures.
Is fashion in your family DNA?
It is definitely in my family DNA. My father was a linguist and a diplomat and went to college at UCLA. I have black and white photos of him looking very stylish, wearing sharp suits and skinny ties. My late mother has also been a constant source of inspiration. She wore African print but had a way of making it funky. She’d add platform heels and colorful jewellery. Different things to make it her own.
I went to boarding school so my own fashion sense was stifled somewhat; when I had freedom I really liked to experiment.
Africa and specifically your Congolese roots, is obviously a major influence in all your collections. Can you talk a bit about that?
Congolese culture is known for its fashion sense. It is very eclectic and colorful. I am particularly drawn to one of the sub-cultures, Les Sapeurs or ‘Dandies’ as they are sometimes referred to. Young men on a Sunday, who dress up or get ‘dolled-up’ in incredible outfits (colourful suits and hats) and stroll around. I draw inspiration from that; fashion as escapism from the day to day struggles. The Congo has been through a lot.
You have talked in the past about being inspired by the colours and vibrant prints of Africa. Do you use fabrics from Africa?
This is actually how I started my brand in 2009. I wanted to take traditional African print and make it more wearable. I wanted to wear it to class, see people wearing it every day. A few years ago though I stopped using traditional fabrics as I saw them everywhere - they had become trendy. It was at this point that I started to design my own fabrics. They are more personal and tell my own story. They are very distinct and you won’t find them anywhere but my own collection.
The inspiration for the textile I designed for latest collection came from a show I did in Cape Town last year and the bright colourful houses of Venice. I found a textile designer and went back and forth with sketches until we got it right. From the sketches, the digital versions were produced, then the repeats. I looked at fabrics, selected the right silk and at the end of a six week process, I produced samples in my home studio.
Now I am primarily designing my own prints. I’m currently collaborating with a Nigerian fine artist who I met when we were both invited to speak at Wharton on a panel about African business.
How did your time at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago prepare you as a designer? Did you go there directly from high school or did your studies take you down another route first?
I went to the Art Institute later in life. My father would have said I was crazy if I’d said I was going to be a fashion designer so my first degree was in International Business and Economics. I worked in marketing for a few years but my real passion in life was fashion and I would always get my clothing made bespoke.
The Art Institute was two years full time and taught me how to sew, cut, put a collection together, even color theory but what it didn't teach me was the practical side of running a brand. I wasn't prepared for that at all but I knew that was what I wanted to do.
You were chosen to be one of the participants in the Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s in 2011. This was an initiative set up by the then Mayor in 2005 to support the industry, building on the city’s long heritage both with manufacturing and the two major design schools. How did this program help you and the development of your brand?
The Macy’s program gave me everything I was lacking from the Art Institute. We looked at how to cost a product, what is wholesale, how to curate your own collection, trends, marketing, web design, registering your own company. Essentially everything your company needs to be successful.
A lot of creatives work alone but being in a collaborative environment was really helpful. Also the physical space was amazing - state of the art sewing machines and plenty of cutting tables. It was very valuable having those resources available.
Why did you subsequently leave Chicago and base yourself in New York? Does New York present more opportunities to a designer in the fashion industry?
New York is the fashion capital of the world and I felt that I wasn't being challenged in Chicago. It’s a big and expensive city and I was scared by the prospect of New York but a work opportunity came along and I jumped at it. The first year, I didn't do much with my brand as I was a little stuck but then I re-branded and really started to move forward. I saw that African print was everywhere, it was very ‘in’ and it was hard to move away from it as that was what the brand was established on. I have moved in a new direction though with African-inspired print and with designing my own textiles. In 2019, I will be participating in many more trade shows and my goal is to be in 50 shops by the end of the year.
You have clients all over the world - from the US, to Europe, Africa and Asia. Do you see patterns emerge in terms of what customers buy in certain parts of the world?
I find that long dresses and jumpsuits sell well with my customers everywhere and my bolder patterns and prints are always very popular. My collection is mostly resort wear so it appeals to clients from all over the globe. I find that pop-ups are really helpful as a way to get feedback on what styles work best and I often bring back styles based on that feedback, sometimes with slightly different versions and fabrics for each season.
Do you design with a particular woman in mind? Do you see any common characteristics in a Kahindo client?
I design for a confident, powerful woman who loves color, wants to make a statement and stand out from the crowd but won’t be concerned about trends and the latest ‘it’ piece or designer must have.
You've shown your collections at runway shows in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Johannesburg. How important are runway shows for you and what impact have they had for you? Are they an essential way to reach buyers and raise your profile? Is that changing?
Runway shows have been a useful way for me to raise my profile, get noticed by buyers and have resulted in some high profile press coverage. Increasingly though, influencer and social media marketing is becoming very important for small brands like mine as a means to build a following and ultimately drive sales in a more cost effective way. Instagram has had a huge impact on the retail landscape and it presents a huge opportunity when used in the right way.
Do you think that big luxury retailers like Saks and Barneys do enough to support small designers?
I don’t think they do do enough to support smaller designers and don’t really differentiate their offering. Net a Porter is selling smaller independent brands and that is a way to differentiate. I think that’s the way forward. I believe the tide is changing in that respect.
How do you feel the decline in bricks and mortar retail is impacting small designers? Is it possible to mostly sell online or is it still important for customers to be able to walk into a shop and see a line, feel the garments and try them on there and then?
I think it remains essential for there to be the ‘real’ retail experience. In the case of my collection, women need to be able to try on my pieces rather than see them online. They need to touch and feel the fabrics. It is important to see the craftmanship and the quality of the fabric.
One of the real issues with fashion today is sustainability and how to get it right and make it cost efficient for smaller brands - from production, working conditions, living wages for workers and sourcing fabric where the chain of supply is clear. What are your views on this?
I produce in Chicago in small runs. I work with one lady and have done for nine years. I treat her as a partner in my business. She is truly the best at what she does and helps me to deliver the exceptional quality I promise my clients. That said, as the brand is growing and I expand my retail footprint, I also need to be able to produce on a bigger scale so I have found several factories in New York who meet my very exacting standards for high quality and fast turnaround.
My long-term vision is that I would produce on a bigger scale in Africa using a women’s cooperative (receiving living wages) who make pieces for export. In 2012, I did a production run in Africa and found that the biggest challenge is quality and getting the detail right if you are managing the process at long distance as I was. If this is something that I commit to in the future, I would need to be there to oversee production.
You give back through philanthropic endeavours in native Democratic Republic of Congo. Kickstarter campaign, mamafrica. What do you do and why is this important to you?
Giving back is extremely important to me and I am particularly keen to support projects in Africa. I have been involved in an initiative working with a women’s cooperative in The Congo who used scrap fabric that I sent them from my collection and made it into clutches. The clutches were then sold on Kickstarter, on my website and at different pop-ups that I’ve done.
As someone who was orphaned relatively young, I am looking to partner with an orphanage in the Congo, donating a percentage of future sales to help support the work that they do.
What are your favorite parts of NYC? Any interesting hidden gems you’d like to share?
My favorite thing about New York is the diversity of the people, cuisine and things to do. There's always a new play, restaurant and exhibition or pop up opening up. I live in Harlem and there are so many delicious hidden gems and African restaurants to check out in the neighborhood.
The Museum of Color is one of my favourite places to go for inspiration and I also love the numerous boutique fitness studios available and new types of workouts on offer in the city. Box & Flow is my go to spot to get fit and release stress as it combines boxing and yoga.